Wednesday 30 July ~

ITV acquired exclusive rights to the Premier League from the start of 2001-02. We asked Cameron Carter to watch as much of the coverage as he could stomach. He emerged unscathed but unsympathetic (from WSC 176, October 2001)

ITV have got football. It’s like the Childcatcher and, frankly, I’m scared. With the first edition of The Premiership going out at the Blind Date time of 7pm, ITV were always going to have one eye on the committed fan and the other on its family audience. I sat down to watch it with two packets of Frazzles and a heavy heart. First, why Beautiful Day by U2? I bet Bono doesn’t even like football. It’s an old pop song probably about the singer’s ex-girlfriend having a breakdown in Miami. Bad start. And the time. You cannot have a credible football programme on when it’s still light. I kept thinking I was watching the highlights on the news. In fact, I was completely disorientated and wanted to go outside.

Still having trouble with the glare from the window, I then became unhinged by the speed at which the programme was passing. The transition from first half to second was marked by a freeze-frame on the last action of the first half, followed by a small blue sign in the bottom right-hand corner saying “second half”. Otherwise, you were on your own – no establishing shot of fans having their half-time pork pie, no John Motson statistic. The main Middlesbrough v Arsenal match was rushed through as if it were the extra match at the end and the whole programme had the air of someone in a medical hurry.

The first match’s highlights were nine minutes long, Liverpool v West Ham took eight minutes and Sunderland v Ipswich was still far too long at six. The programme’s extra 15 minutes over the hour were almost entirely subsumed by three four-minute advertisement breaks. By the time the last game was being analysed, this runaway vehicle was going so fast there was no time to include the interviewer’s question about Robbie Fowler, making Gérard Houllier’s isolated comments appear needlessly enigmatic.

Of course there were going to be innovations. What’s the point of having ideas people on the payroll otherwise? Of the two introduced, Prozone seemed likely to be more successful than Andy Townsend in a trailer showing a moody defender his mistakes. Terry Venables’s explanation of Michael Owen’s first goal must have given Michael Carrick goosebumps. (Though ITV clearly disagreed, cutting the slot after the press savaging of The Premiership in order to squeeze in a bit more action.) Taken as a whole, this hideously slender programme suggested that ITV believe the population’s short attention span is decreasing daily, when in fact football fans are among the last few left in our society who can genuinely concentrate on one event for 90 minutes.

The second programme, at 11.15, was much better. Des started off properly with a joke (“We at ITV do it twice a night on Saturdays”) and the extended highlights gave you time to relax in your chair. The team of Des, Venables and Ally McCoist is the best yet assembled by ITV and the painful yearning for Alan, Trevor and even Gary is already starting to heal. Of course, where ITV nearly always get it wrong is in the near-total absence of class, grace and dignity, but this seems to have been given some consideration by the production team. The half-expected Sky style of over-presentation didn’t materialise. Occasionally a statistic popped shyly out of the team names in the top corner (“Score last season: Liverpool 3 v 0 West Ham”), but there was little other embellishment and the programme steered a sober course. Never mind that half the people watching it at this time were drunker than a pirate on shore leave.

The commentary team was able enough and, unlike Barry Davies with that salivatory desire to show off his reading, largely unobtrusive. Except for Jon Champion, who, rather than being “poached” from the BBC, seems to have been inherited, like a chipped gravy-boat. During Sunderland v Ipswich, when Titus Bramble had been penalised and Kevin Phillips was preparing to take the penalty, Champion said – he actually said – “Bramble ruminating, Phillips hoping to be fulminating”. I ask you.

That aside, the late Premiership was a pleasant surprise. The problem is, if you’ve seen the first programme there’s not much point staying up for this one, and if you deliberately miss the early edition – a choice I will be making with all my strength – a quarter-to-midnight is a mighty long time to wait. It’s all very well Des looking at his watch at 7pm and murmuring “Better for us, better for you”, but at this time of night he’s up against a quiz show on the other side. Football was never meant to be up against a quiz show.

Monday at 11pm brought us the third evil triplet. The Premiership Parliament with Gabby Yorath (now officially Logan) and Ally McCoist is a fine example of ITV spreading a successful ratings-puller very thinly. She began with “If it moves in the top flight, we’ve got it covered” and that pretty much set the tone for the night. It’s lines like that that demonstrate the BBC simply has better scriptwriters. Gary Lineker, although in isolation about as funny as a management techniques weekend, still came up with pearlers on a weekly basis. The gradual unravelling of Gabby’s late night personality was quite disconcerting, like watching a respected primary school teacher on two pints of snakebite.

Then there was the sustained confusion over whose turn it was to speak, with some contributors not only barely audible but only visible when the camera finally swung over to them, just as they were trailing off. The fans’ “parliament” was audible enough. In fact, its members’ articulacy and objectivity seemed to disappoint the show’s presenters. Obviously, at the planning stage this was going to be a live, stirring bear-pit of a programme. Its low-key sprawling shoddiness must have been a big disappointment to its makers as well as its audience.

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